Co-opting Context

by Tom Webster , VP Edison Media Research

This month, Apple announced its latest “must-have” gadget, the Airport Express. On the surface, it simply extends Apple’s Airport Extreme WiFi system by expanding its range (and capability.). The device is basically a square “brick” (approximately the size and shape of those beepers you get while waiting for a table at Slappy McBeer’s) with I/O ports for audio, USB and FireWire connections. It plugs directly into a wall socket, and extends your Apple (or Windows PC) into your living room by broadcasting iTunes audio directly to your stereo.
Apple and BMW have also developed an integrated system that allows drivers to stow their iPod into the glove compartment and control it via buttons on the steering wheel. The BMW integration allows listeners to access their file collection without having to use complicated adapters, take their hands off the wheel, or suffer reduced sound quality.

What if “media multitasking” weren’t a one-way valve, but a two-way street?

What makes these devices intriguing is the way in which they address the context of music listening. Microsoft has tried for years to bring the computer into the living room, with its “Ultimate TV” software, WebTV and the ever-expanding girth of the Windows Media Player. Gateway once developed a PC designed to be situated in the living room (and not the office) by including the first widely distributed wireless mouse and keyboard, and packaging the whole thing with a gigantic, hernia-inducing monitor. This “Destination System” is now defunct, and Gateway continues to struggle with bridging the “living room gap.”
Apple’s new devices bring the PC into the living room in a subtler, more pervasive manner—by leaving the “computer” behind, bringing your MP3 files out of the personal, private sphere of a headphone environment and into more social environs—the space where radio currently lives. While I love my .MP3 collection, I didn’t spend five grand on a good stereo so that I could listen to my music through tinny laptop speakers. These new products work unobtrusively with my preferred listening habits—in my preferred context for listening. No branding, no “black box” (remember the Kerbango?) and no additional demands upon the listener—a complement, not an implement. In other words, a companion–just like my radio
Of course, we have had CD changers for years, so this is nothing new. However, it is important to note that unlike a CD player or changer, a high-capacity MP3 player set to randomly shuffle through gigantic playlists can provide the sense of surprise and discovery that was previously the exclusive domain of radio. Soon, the same kind of technology used in knowledge management applications could be co-opted to program “intelligent agents,” software “DJ’s” that comb through your file collections, make connections through collaborative filtering algorithms, and automatically produce compelling playlists.
Here is the silver lining. As the latest Arbitron/Edison Media Research study, Internet and Multimedia 12, concludes, 63% of Americans who have Internet access and a television in the same room either “frequently” or “sometimes” use them simultaneously. Forty-two percent of Internet users who listen to audio over the web have done so while shopping or researching products. This increasing phenomenon of “media multitasking” is a byproduct of the nature of the Internet, and as digital devices continue to converge, will become more and more pervasive. As the barriers between the computer and other entertainment and information devices are removed, the Internet will enter more and more of the various “contexts” of our lives. Too many radio pessimists, however, have viewed the computer as a siphon—a one-way valve that diverts attention away from broadcast radio and towards more “interactive” entertainment. But what if “media multitasking” weren’t a one-way valve, but a two-way street?
Radio has always tried to address the context of listening (“Thanks for taking us to work with you today!”); but this context also includes competing media channels, such as the Internet or television. Carving out space within those contexts need not be a zero-sum game, however. As listeners become more and more comfortable with media multitasking, radio can explore new and exciting ways to complement, and not compete with, other channels—even TV! Here are a few debate-prompters, off the top of my head:
1. If you program a CHR, chances are many of your listeners are watching American Idol. Why not complement the telecast with a live radio show, and “co-opt” the event? A complementary American Idol show could dish on the contestants (Mystery Science Theatre 3000 redux) or take calls on the air while the telecast is in commercial break. You might not be able to compete against Simon, but surely you can win out over Lemon Fresh Pledge.
2. Remember pop-up video? Why not use your web site for an hour at night for pop-up audio?
3. Here’s one for multi-station clusters: build a web page that lists what is currently playing on all of your stations. Heresy? Research shows that channel flipping, seeking and scanning behaviors are all increasing. You can’t fight that—but you can join it, by providing compelling alternatives. XM does it by actively cross-promoting other channels—they actually tell you to switch over to the Classic Rock channel if you want to hear more hits. Clusters have a unique opportunity for similar synergies. What does this do for your brand, you might ask? Dunno—but it makes you seem a lot friendlier to use. It works for Progressive Insurance.
4. I used to love scavenger hunts. Why not live scavenger hunts over the air-only using Google instead of a shovel? On air clues could lead your listeners to web sites—type in the mystery word to get the next key, etc.—all in real time.
OK—I am a researcher, not a promotions director. I do believe, however, that radio can add tremendous value to “media multitaskers”—if we truly seek to complement the individual listener’s context as best we can. You may not be able to own your audiences’ undivided attention, but by unobtrusively co-opting other “competing” media channels–your station could “own” the experience.
Tom Webster is a Vice President with Edison Media Research and has conducted hundreds of market research studies within the radio, technology and Internet industries. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the web site biweekly. Tom can be reached at 919.260.0228 or